Why It’s Crucial for Engineers to Keep High Standards – An Interview with Karen Bartleson

Why It’s Crucial for Engineers to Keep High Standards – An Interview with Karen Bartleson

Karen Bartleson, 2013 IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) President and 2017 IEEE President/CEO, recently video chatted with me to discuss the importance of standards. Before our conversation, I was already aware of her book, The Ten Commandments for Effective Standards: Practical Insights for Creating Technical Standards, and knew she has given many outreach presentations championing the importance of standards. However, I was not aware of how deeply vested her efforts were.

JA: How long have you been dedicated to standards development?

KB: I started working on standards development when dinosaurs walked the earth. Actually, it was in the mid-1980s when I first became involved in standards.

JA: How would you define a standard?

KB: The simplest definition of a standard is “the way everyone does something.” A standard is a detailed description; it’s a document. It tells people how to implement something so things plug together, communicate, or meet specific safety requirements. Obvious examples are an electrical outlet (all the same in a given region of the world) or a USB port. There are documents that describe exactly what a product needs to have in order to plug in. (BTW, these are not IEEE standards.)

Wi-Fi is actually a document that was created and is maintained by a large group of volunteers, working within the IEEE Standards Association. If a company wants to make a product that sends or receives information through the airwaves, they follow the specifications in the Wi-Fi document. The document is officially called IEEE Standard 802.11. Wi-Fi is the commercial name of the standard.

JA: What made you choose to get involved in this effort?

KB: IEEE standards are everywhere, helping people all over the globe be safer and have better products and systems. Imagine a world without Wi-Fi, which is one of IEEE’s best-known standards. Participating in IEEE standards projects and governance has benefited me both professionally and personally.

JA: Could you give an example as to how it has benefited you professionally?

KB: One of my job responsibilities at all three companies that I worked for was helping to develop standards. These standards were used to design integrated circuits. Overall, they helped our customers design faster, smaller, less expensive chips that were more reliable and had higher quality. Ultimately, this meant that our business was better. Standards helped improve the companies’ bottom line, and that was good for my career development and my performance reviews.

Through standards, I was able to keep up with the fast-paced semiconductor industry. Our design automation standards had to stay on the leading edge or become obsolete. We had to understand the technology trends to keep up with new developments that happened approximately every two years.

JA: Did you discover any other benefits of this work?

KB: Working on standards projects led me into IEEE standards governance. As I volunteered for, was appointed to, or was elected to various positions, I found my skills and visibility improving greatly. Specifically, I learned how to apply consensus-building tools and techniques to solve difficult problems. These can be problems at work, within IEEE, and even in my personal life.

JA: It sounds like your volunteer work in standards helped you grow as a leader. What was your motivation as you ascended in the ranks?

KB: As I rose in IEEE’s organization, I found myself meeting world leaders, students just entering the engineering fields, and fascinating people at all stages of their careers. The rewards of being at the top of IEEE are indescribable, but mostly, as IEEE President, I felt a huge opportunity to put my experience to work for the benefit of people everywhere. I focused on IEEE’s Young Professionals because not only are they the future of IEEE, but they will be responsible for addressing daunting problems such as climate change and online bullying. To be able to support our next generation of technologists was a way to ensure that the world is safe and healthy for my own children and the eras to come.

JA: What has your favorite work in standards been?

KB: One of most satisfying projects I was involved in with IEEE standards is the book called, Ethically Aligned Design. The premise is that developers of autonomous and intelligent systems, often called artificial intelligence, must consider ethical implications before they begin creating these technologies. There is fear that AI could destroy the human race; but if ethics are in play, AI could be a boon to humanity. Playing a small role in this publication gave me an opportunity to participate in a movement that could prevent human catastrophes. IEEE now has more than a dozen standards under development to support ethics in technology.

JA: For any of our readers who have been inspired by your passion and contributions to standards, how does someone get involved in standards?

KB: First, I think it’s important to mention that you don’t have to be an IEEE member to participate in IEEE standards activities. Anyone can join a Working Group that develops an IEEE standard using our individual-based model. You do have to be an IEEE member to hold positions in governance, though.

The way to get involved in a standards project is the same, whether you are an IEEE member or not. First, find the project you want to participate in. You can search for projects here: https://standards.ieee.org/project/index.html or by doing a search on the internet.

Next, click on the name of chair or program manager for the Working Group to send an email requesting to join. They will add you to the roster, let you know when the next meeting is, and point you to the Working Group’s policies and procedures. That’s it!

JA: Is there a way for our readers to start new projects?

KB: If you want to start a new standards project, the first step is to find an appropriate Standards Committee within one of IEEE’s Societies and Technical Councils. Find one that is most closely related to the technology associated with the standard you wish to create. Here is a list of all the Standards Committees and the committee chairs: https://development.standards.ieee.org/pub/view-sponsor-pnps

When you’ve chosen a Standards Committee, contact the chair who will guide you through the process of developing a new standard.

JA: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

KB: I hope that this information will inspire people to get involved in IEEE standards and enjoy the satisfaction of helping advance technology for the benefit of humanity.

I’m grateful for the chance to explore this aspect of IEEE with one of our organization’s top leaders who serves as such an inspirational role model.

This interview was a requested topic from one of our readers. If you have a suggestion for a future blog post, please include a comment in the section below or connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message.


Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here

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